Restoring the right to breathe: Migration detention must end

The COVID-19 pandemic has yet again rendered visible the harmful and obsolete nature of migration detention. It is time to end it.

The European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has characterised Denmark's Ellebæk detention centre as 'unacceptable for people' [Elisabet Kass/Al Jazeera]

“Ellebæk has been used by police to humiliate, segregate and racially profile people who came to ask asylum. We who have been locked up in Ellebæk, were not criminals for your information, even though the police treat us like we are criminals.”

These are the words of Andrew, who was twice imprisoned for eleven months and one month respectively in the Danish migration detention centre Ellebæk, which the European Committee for the Prevention of Torture has called among the worst of its kind in Europe. Andrew’s testimony of discrimination and degradation resonates with criticism voiced by people held in migration detention camps in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. As detention visitors and advocates for detainees’ rights, researchers, and people who experienced incarceration first-hand, we find it imperative that this criticism is taken seriously and that the systemic harms of detention are addressed.

Migration-related detention has become a standardised instrument used by states to regulate undesired mobility. It entails the incarceration of people who have not committed any crime but who, as Andrew observes, are racially profiled and criminalised for who they are.

In addition to being discriminatory, detention exposes migrants to mental and physical abuse, arbitrary violence, and rights violations. Detained migrants have limited access to legal safeguards and external monitoring mechanisms are extremely limited. Compared with the lethal violence deployed against migrants at Europe’s external borders, the violence affecting migrants held in these obscured sites rarely makes the headlines.

The hidden violence of Europe’s migration detention centres has been aggravated by the ongoing pandemic. Our collective observations from Ellebæk detention centre in Denmark illustrate some of them.

Ellebæk is run by the Danish prison and probation service, and located in former military facilities. In their 2019 report, the European Committee against Torture (CPT) called Ellebæk “unacceptable” and criticised its poor material conditions, inadequate access to healthcare, arbitrary use of solitary confinement, and degrading treatment from staff.

The majority of those held in Ellebæk stay there for a few weeks, yet some remain up to 18 months awaiting possibly violent deportation. Many, however, cannot be forcefully deported due to their de facto statelessness or because the state Denmark wants to deport them to does not accept citizens forcefully returned. In these cases, months-long incarceration is used to pressure people into “collaborating” to return “freely”. Yet others do “collaborate” and express a wish to return, yet might still remain held for months.

Before the outbreak of the pandemic, people detained in Ellebæk reported experiencing chronic anxiety, fear, and anger. Many of them received medication against depression or sleep-deprivation. Andrew describes Ellebæk as a “death zone”, and several detainees have reported being haunted by traumatic memories of the centre long after being released.

Since the onset of the pandemic, detainees’ anxiety has gotten worse. The measures taken by authorities to reduce the risk of infection, including limiting the number of visitors allowed, cancelling activities and church services, which provided a connection to the outside world, together with the risk of being forcibly tested for COVID-19 and quarantined in solitary confinement have aggravated their isolation and reduced the possibilities for external actors to monitor the conditions for detainees.

Bingzhi Zhu, who was arrested and deported during the pandemic, recalls being pushed several times by guards and when she reported these incidents to other guards, no action was taken. We have heard several similar testimonies of ill-treatment, which suggest that they are not an aberration but common institutional practice that remains unrecorded and unpunished.

Due to travel restrictions associated with COVID-19 and the health risks that detained migrants are exposed to, the European Human Rights Commissioner has alongside other human rights organisations called for states to release detained migrants who cannot be deported in the foreseeable future.

However, Danish authorities have kept on enforcing detention and deportation orders during the pandemic. Several people we talked to in 2020 and 2021 have had their detention orders repeatedly prolonged and remained in Ellebæk for an extended time period, without properly being informed about the legality or proportionality of their continued incarceration.

Many detainees experience the monthly review of their detention in court as a shallow performance of a trial, which serves to punish them rather than safeguard their rights. Having their detention orders repeatedly prolonged during the pandemic, despite the Danish authorities’ inability to enforce their deportation, has left detainees in a Kafkaesque situation where they are unduly punished for circumstances outside their control.

The pandemic has further exacerbated the detrimental effects detainment has on health and the rightlessness that many detained migrants experience. It has not only exposed government authorities’ disregard for their lives but also the ineffectiveness of detention as an instrument to “motivate” those who for various reasons cannot be deported by force to accept voluntary return.

For a brief moment, the pandemic seemed to open up for a debate that problematised states’ prioritisation of migration enforcement over migrants’ health and rights. However, this moment now seems to have passed, and the plight of the people detained in Europe’s archipelago of detention camps has fallen into public oblivion.

In his reflection on the COVID-19 pandemic, Philosopher Achille Mbembe emphasised the need to fight not only the virus but any forms of systemic oppression that “condemns the majority of humankind to a premature cessation of breathing”. COVID-19 cannot be considered separately from these other pandemics – of systemic racism, border violence, and global injustices – which expose some communities to premature death.

Migration detention centres are symptomatic of these pandemics. They serve and sustain a violent border regime that jeopardises migrants’ health, dignity, and rights – including their fundamental right to breathe freely. To restore this fundamental human right, we must challenge the public neglect of detained migrants.

The least we can do is ensure external monitoring of detention centres and hold state authorities accountable for the mistreatment of detained migrants. In the long run, however, and in the interest of a universal right to breathe freely, migration detention centres need to be abolished altogether.

Andrew, who has asked not to be identified with his full name, also contributed to this article.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.